About the Mechanics is a new series of topics where we will discus and examine a particular aspect of the game mechanics and how and when to use them. Now this may seem redundant and you may be thinking “well I already know how to use the game mechanics, what is there to discuss? Well hear me out and keep reading….
In this post we are going to look at Initiative. Initiative is what determines the order in which players and Non Player Characters act in an encounter. Depending on what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you are playing, typically you will be rolling a D20 and adding or subtracting a modifier from the roll. For example in 3.5 Edition you may have Plus two from your dexterity bonus, and the improved initiative feat, giving you total plus six to your Twenty sided dice roll. Usually you roll initiative at the start of combat, and then that order stands for its duration. The Dungeon Master will roll for the adversaries in the encounter and then the order of action for all involved will be determined. Some Dungeon Masters may choose to roll initiative for every single Non Player Character or monster in the encounter, others may roll once for them all, or once for all types. I personally roll for each type and separately for leaders or key Non Player Characters such as leaders. For example if my players face four orcs, four goblins and an Ogre, I would roll once for the orcs, once for the goblins and once for the ogre. Combat can be hectic enough to keep track of without having a ton of different initiative numbers to keep track off.
OK so why do I feel a blog post needs to be dedicated to this mechanic? well it is not the mechanic itself that I want to discuss, but WHEN to say that well known phrase “Roll for initiative!” You see when the Dungeon Master utters those words, everything changes. The players mood changes, their attitude changes and the tension level changes. The rolling of initiative typically marks the beginning of combat. No matter where your players heads were at, unless they were already hell bent on a fight, telling them to Roll for initiative is almost like ringing the bell in a boxing match and is going to start a fight. If they were thinking of trying a diplomatic solution, or evading the encounter, being told to roll initiative kind of implies the fight is on, and will most likely stop the characters from continuing with other courses of action, and just wade in to battle. On the other hand if you do not ask your players to roll for initiative your players may perceive that the encounter may not be intended for combat, or that the Non Player Characters they are facing are not hostile. This of course may be totally wrong and then, when the Bad guys suddenly jump the players they may be upset that you did not give them a chance to roll for initiative to begin with.
Rolling or requesting a roll for initiative also drastically changes the mood and mindset of the game and the players at that point. If I (as the Dungeon Master) ask them to roll for initiative during a heated discussion, it snaps the tension bar and says to the players “OK FIGHT”! This may rob them of any continued diplomatic efforts or role playing options. In my story I never want to alter the natural flow, feel or atmosphere of the game at an inappropriate time. If I am going to ask them to roll for initiative, I want it to be the epic start of the conflict and battle and not disrupt a flow of negotiation or exploration of non combat options.
I know some Dungeon Masters that like to PRE roll initiative. They get each player to roll a number of times prior to the game session and then use them in order for each encounter (applying modifiers as needed at that time). This is not a bad idea, but I feel it also offers to take away some of the epic tension moments that arise as combat is about to kick off.
My solution is to never prompt a roll for initiative without a combative or aggressive declaration first. Either I will say something like “The ogre rushes towards you, with his club raised high, intent on crushing your skull”, or a player will declare that they are engaging in some way. At that time, I will often say “EVERYONE roll for initiative to determine the order should it be needed”, or just ask the specific individual who chooses to enter combat to roll, depending on the current situation. I use descriptive language and I roll play demeanor and intent to let my players know how an encounter is going. They can tell by my voice and actions if a negotiation is going sour and a fight may be imminent.They can then choose to act first if they wish or wait and see what happens. Either way I am not going to request an initiative roll until a blow or spell or other timed action is about to take place. It can be hard enough to get the correct feel for an encounter, without ruining the immersion by bringing game mechanics to the fore front. This is why I do not mention the initiative roll, until it is one hundred percent clear that it is now required.
Initiative can also be used in non combat situations of course to determine the speed of almost simultaneous actions. I remember one time I was running an encounter where everyone tried to rush through a door first. The situation leading up to that lead everyone to the same conclusion and each player (in turn around the tabletop) declared the same action. So I had them roll initiative to see who has the faster reflexes in that situation and got their foot in the door first. If I had said prior to the declaration of intent “OK I want each of you to roll for initiative” I guarantee they would have all stopped and hesitated, as they as players would have expected a possible combat, even though there had been nothing to suggest that to their characters. Even those that try hard not to meta game, still fall foul to a change in emotion and may act differently when lead to expect something is going to happen.
In closing, treat initiative as the mechanical resolution to an in game declaration. It should not be requested before it is needed, and the Dungeon master should do his job properly and allow the scene to imply weather or not it may be imminently required. It should be the last thing to happen before a sword be swung, a fireball be cast or a dagger thrown. If you do not care about the feel and immersion of your game, then I guess it matters less to you when to request a roll. I live to tell a story, and not play a game. I believe in immersion over mechanics and Role Playing over ROLL playing. If a dice is going to be rolled it better be for a good reason, and as it is almost always going to determine the outcome of an action, I want the appropriate tension level to be present when it is rolled.